REVIEW WRITTEN BY NATHAN LERNER
For Digital First Media
“Woman in Gold” is a well-intentioned, albeit misbegotten, depiction of one aspect of the Holocaust.
At the epicenter of the film is the uphill legal struggle to reacquire some of the artwork that was systematically purloined by the Nazis. The contentious dispute culminated in the U.S. Supreme Court case of Republic of Austria v. Altmann.
Maria Altmann (Helen Mirren) had grown up in pre-War World II Vienna, Austria as part of an affluent Jewish family. Her childless Aunt Adele and Uncle Ferdinand shared a deluxe apartment with Maria, her sister, and parents.
Maria’s Uncle Ferdinand was a successful industrialist, who had made a fortune in the sugar refinery business. He had commissioned the acclaimed Austrian artist, Gustav Klimt, to do two portraits of his beautiful young wife and four other paintings. One of the resulting works, “Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer I,” was a striking, gold-flecked masterpiece. The portrait as well as the other paintings by Klimt were hung in places of honor in Maria’s childhood home.
Maria enjoyed a loving relationship with her Aunt Adele and regarded her as a second mother. For this reason, the portrait of her aunt had particular resonance for Maria. Aunt Adele died of meningitis at the tender age of 43.
In 1938, Nazi Germany annexed Austria as part of the Anschlus. When the Nazis arrived in Austria, they implemented a program to confiscate the property of affluent Jews. One day, Nazi soldiers came to Maria’s home and stripped Uncle Ferdinand’s art collection right off the wall. As things turned progressively worse for the Jews, Maria managed to escape her native country and settled in California.
Decades later, Maria learns about mounting pressure to return artwork, which had been confiscated by the Nazis, to their rightful owners. In 1998, 44 countries, including Austria, signed the Washington Principles on Nazi-Confiscated Art. This agreement exhorted a “just and fair solution” for Jews and other victims of Nazi thievery. However, it was an edentulous document, which was not binding upon its signatories.
The portrait of Maria’s aunt and the other Klimt paintings stolen from her family’s home, were hanging on public display in Vienna’s Belvedere Museum. The magnificent edifice had originally been constructed by Prince Eugene of Savoy in the 18th century as his private residence. He had been an officer in the Imperial Army of the Habsburg Empire in the ongoing battles against the Ottomans. Prince Eugene was a bibliophile and patron of the arts. Ultimately, his palace became the national art gallery for Austria. In the wake of the Washington Principles, the Austrian Parliament passed legislation to allow parties to lodge claims for the return of looted artwork.
Maria decides that, as an heir of her Uncle Ferdinand’s estate, she is entitled to reacquire the portrait of her Aunt Adele and the other artwork, which had been seized by the Nazis. She also decides that she is entitled to pro bono legal representation. She approaches E. Randol Schoenberg (Ryan Reynolds), a young, inexperienced attorney, who had recently been admitted to the bar. Maria haughtily insists that since she is a family friend, Randol should represent her without charge. Maria is not only harbors unreasonable expectations, she is rude and abrasive to boot.
Initially, Randol spurns Maria’s request to provide legal assistance. However, he ultimately succumbs to Maria’s persistent harassment and is guilt tripped into representing her in this seemingly quixotic quest. What chance do they have to acquire a portrait that has been described as the “Mona Lisa” of Austria?
Once again, Helen Mirren demonstrates what a fine actor she is. Mirren is particularly skilled at capturing the quality of imperiousness. It made her ideally suited to play the regal, titular character in “The Queen.” Here, she reprises that exaggerated sense of entitlement and infuses her character with it. Although Mirren does an excellent job in this regard, it turns Hannah Altmann, who is supposed to a sympathetic character, into someone who is insufferable. The formulation of this character is ill-considered from a narrative vantage point. Moreover, it perpetuates negative stereotypes about overbearing Jews.
As her co-star, Ryan Reynolds is egregiously miscast. Previously, the Canadian actor has been relegated to lightweight fare. This includes the ABC sitcom, “Two Guys and a Girl” as well as brain-dead films like “National Lampoon’s Van Wilder” and “Green Lantern.” Here, he is expected to convince the audience that he is the serious-minded attorney, who successfully obtains a writ of certiorari to argue the case before the U.S. Supreme Court. Reynold’s thespian efforts prove unconvincing.
The screenplay is by Alexi Kaye Campbell. It should be noted that Campbell’s first play, “The Pride,” was widely acclaimed. It won the Critic’s Circle Award for Most Promising Playwright and the John Whiting Award for Best New Play. Alas, Campbell’s skill as playwright does not translate into screenwriting. His screenplay for “Woman in Gold” is disconcertingly disjointed. Campbell’s persistent use of flashbacks in particularly ham-handed.
The film is directed by Simon Curtis, who had previously helmed “My Week with Marilyn.” Here, his work is competent, but nothing special.
The Nazi’s plunder of artwork has already been thoroughly-explored in “The Rape of Europa” and various other documentaries. Alas, the heavy-handed “Woman in Gold” does a profound disservice to its important subject matter.
** PG-13 (Some disturbing thematic elements and brief strong language) 110 minutes
Nathan Lerner sees over 20 feature films a year. He welcomes feedback at firstname.lastname@example.org.